2002 Conference Proceedings

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E-LEARNING: THE CHALLENGE FOR THE BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED

Presenter: Catherine Geoffroy

Authors: Catherine GEOFFROY, Philippe MABILLEAU

TECSO, Inc.
1717 René-Lévesque blvd. East, Suite 210
Montreal, Quebec
Canada H2L 4T3
Phone: (514)590-4218
FAX: (514)590-4228
Email: info@tecso.qc.ca

Accessibility issues are crucial in the development of universally accessible training software; this will be increasingly crucial as e-learning becomes integral to the modern workplace.

Distance education or E-Learning is a form of training that is developing rapidly. It is already comprises between 10 - 15% of training materials today. It is possible to identify the following sectors: pre-school education, elementary and secondary school education, post-secondary education, professional or corporate training, and consumer-driven education.

Corporate and job-related training is the sector in which the greatest familiarity with distance education can be found. We foresee a rate of expansion of over 50% in the next five years for this mode of training in the business sector. The result is that E-Learning will soon become an integrated part of our society's work environments.

For those concerned with the implementation of this technology in the public sector, the constant pace of change - and the rapid expansion of the user population - offer many more possibilities for distance education in the home. The main obstacles existing at this level are the very same as those faced by electronic commerce: distrust and lack of confidence on the part of the consumers.

As e-learning takes on greater and greater importance, the question of universal accessibility becomes unavoidable. This is reinforced in the United States by aspects of the legislation based on the ADA, as well as by section 508.

Characteristics of Distance Training and Education

A prerequisite for the implementation of effective distance education and training is the existence of a complex and developed technological infrastructure. This is comprised not only of a developed telecommunications infrastructure, but also well-developed networks and database systems. Its implementation is therefore highly technological (and thus very expensive). In general, very specialized software providers are used to achieve this wide-ranging implementation in large organizations such corporations or governmental departments, or through dedicated or general content portals for the public market.

In order to handle rapidly evolving and widely diverse types of content, versatile and sophisticated management tools must be used. These tools must allow for the manipulation of content by individuals who are experts in the content subject but are not literate in programming or applications integration. This democratization of content production and delivery makes it more difficult to impose the required aim of universal accessibility mentioned above.

Meanwhile, the proprietary and sometimes highly sensitive nature of the content and delivery systems involved require, throughout the business world, the presence of highly sophisticated and rigorous security mechanisms.

Distance Training and Adaptation

The nature and structure of e-learning software is such that it often presents tremendous challenges to trainers responsible for adaptation and accessibility issues. The universal and fundamental character of this software necessitates the creation of an intuitive and user-friendly interface that allows the content-related learning to be the focus: one must not be required to learn how to use the interface in order to access (and to learn from) the content. The accessibility of the application and its content must therefore be designed to be available to the user in an intuitive and natural manner even for those users with disabilities, especially visual disabilities.

In combination, these factors make most e-learning software difficult to use for clients with visual disabilities. Firstly, the wide diversity of content types and presentation formats are a major barrier to accessibility for blind and visually impaired users. In addition, special treatment must be applied to the handling of specifically inaccessible media, not only in terms of video or multimedia animation (like Flash animations) that are inaccessible due to their very nature and require additional information like audio description, but also in terms of text presented in inaccessible formats such as the PDF format. The multiplicity of these formats and implementation methods make training with this software extremely laborious for clients with visual impairments, as well as requiring a degree of accomplishment in skills like navigation and the use of adaptive software, such as screen readers. For these users it becomes necessary to "learn in order to learn", which is a violation of one of the basic principles of design for learning software: that the software interface be easy-to-use and intuitive.

Next, the high degree of flexibility that is required for the structure and content of software used in distance training and education can present challenges to systems and content developers who may only with great difficulty achieve adequate awareness of the needs of blind and visually impaired users, let alone efficiently implementing this knowledge in production and software updates. In order to overcome this obstacle, the needs of blind and visually impaired users must be addressed effectively by systems and content developers. When one considers the high level of specialization required for the development of such content management and implementation utilities, one can deduce the resources that will be required for this adaptation.

Finally, the security constraints often associated with proprietary or confidential content of businesses constitute an additional obstacle for blind and visually impaired users. The connection and security protocols associated with online training are often littered with procedures that are inaccessible or inconvenient for users working with adaptive equipment, such as keystroke feedback reading private passwords aloud, or conflicts between adaptive equipment (such as screen readers) and security systems commonly integrated into the operating systems run on training workstations. This, in addition to the increased security needs, creates an unfortunate need for expensive - if not impossible - adaptations.

Stakes And Perspectives

As stated before, the business sector currently seems to be the one most closely linked to the field of e-learning. The importance it is given in this sector suggests that the accessibility of online training and education will become an important workplace and employment issue for the blind and visually impaired. Accessibility issues in new workplace/professional training software will therefore be the site of the next battle that clients will need to face once they have resolved the still-ongoing struggle for workplace accessibility.

Perhaps at-home online training can become a viable niche with regards to blind and visually impaired clients, and for persons with other impairments as well. For example, the reduced mobility of many of these clients would probably stimulate interest in at-home training. If the attendant accessibility issues were resolved, this type of training could in fact be much more accessible than, and preferable to, traditional methods of training that utilize inaccessible media such as blackboards or overhead projections. All of this demonstrates that there is a viable opening for the development of e-learning software in terms of at-home training for the blind and visually impaired. There remains, of course, a need to overcome the remaining obstacle facing all electronic commerce, which is the mode of content acquisition.

E-Learning Challenge for Blind and Visually Impaired - Page 1 de 3

Philippe Mabilleau Ing.
01/10/01


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